Democrats who want to be Republican U.S. Rep. John Carter's challenger in November think focusing on health care will turn the 31st District north of Austin blue. But Republicans, who have long held the seat, say their opponents won't have much luck without a high-profile candidate like 2018's MJ Hegar, who is now focusing on a U.S. Senate run.
Democratic candidates Eric Hanke, Donna Imam, Dan Janjigian, Christine Mann and Tammy Young are vying for their party's nomination in the district includes suburban Williamson County and the more rural Bell County. They say rising health care costs and support for military veterans are voters' top priorities — and most want to expand access to affordable health care to address those concerns.
“I would put health care at the top of the list because we have a lot of people that don't have access to health care because it's not affordable,” said Hanke, a 41-year-old singer-songwriter who recorded a new song, "Turn Texas Blue," for a campaign ad.
But whoever snags the party's nomination will need to unseat Carter, who was first elected in 2002 and said the general election in November will be about economic security and safety.
"No matter the political party, there's an overall theme to my constituents' concerns, and that is security. That doesn't just mean national security or border security, it also means financial security through a strong economy, educational security through access to good schools, and safety in our communities," Carter said in an email.
Early voting in the primary began Tuesday. Election day is March 3. A primary candidate needs more than 50% of the vote to avoid a runoff for the nomination. Carter is likely to win his party's nomination, though he faces two opponents.
Mike Brewer, a bartender in downtown Round Rock, has lived in the suburb for 10 years. Brewer said health care costs might be his only concern when it comes to voting.
“It sucks — it’s expensive, man. Not a lot of local businesses can afford to pay their employees. I would really like to see universal health care — free across the board," Brewer said.
The district includes some of the area surrounding Fort Hood, the state's largest military base, and has the largest veteran population in Texas, according to data from the United States Department of Veterans Affairs.
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In 2018, Hegar, a political newcomer, became a strong challenger to Carter after a viral ad documenting her military service garnered millions of views. She came within 3 percentage points of unseating Carter, making the district a target for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee this cycle.
“MJ really put this race on the map and showed us that this was possible," said Young, a 51-year-old Round Rock City Council member. "For too long, we’ve allowed Washington insiders to stay in office as long as they want, not believing things could change. MJ showed us what is possible with the right candidate."
Imam said the district's broad voter base includes a range of lifestyles and problems that don't always overlap.
"The landscape of Williamson County has changed in such a huge way over the last five years. That's unfathomable for most people in the United States," said Imam, a computer engineer. "In Bell County, the makeup of the people that live there and the whole area of what they do for living is completely different from Williamson County."
Mann, a 54-year-old physician, was the runner-up in the 2018 Democratic primary runoff against Hegar and considers veterans to be integral to the identity of the voter base. She said Carter has talked about bringing greater funding for veteran support services but hasn’t delivered.
“Veterans come to me and tell me about their difficulty getting their mental health covered, and their families tell me about the struggles that they have with homelessness and suicide in their peers that are in the military,” Mann said.
Dan Janjigian, an actor from Austin best known for his role in the cult classic film "The Room," did not respond to interview requests.
Grey Caraway, who lives in Round Rock, is a veteran and said he doesn’t vote along party lines anymore because both sides have let him down. Unsatisfied with the support he receives from the VA, Caraway said he will wait to see the parties’ nominees to determine if he votes in the general election. He is looking for a candidate to champion racial equality in criminal justice and veterans' interests.
“We're not represented. We get the mouth a lot on a lot of things. [Veterans Affairs has] gotten a lot better since I got out in 2006, but again, it's still the same old goat rope. It's still the same old red tape. Don't call us, we won't call you kind of thing,” Caraway said.
Nathan Hamersley is a barista at a Round Rock coffee shop and said he wants a candidate who will invest in rail lines as alternatives to highways.
"I've lived in countries where you could go anywhere on the public transportation," Hamersley said. "It may take time, but it was possible.”
Nycia Emerson recently opened a rentable workspace in Round Rock and said as a black woman business owner, she would like to see more diversity and representation in Congress to address racism.
“In order for us to have a bigger input in the big things that happen, we need to have diversity. ... It has to be different shades at the table, so that's why it's a big deal for me,” Emerson said.
So far, there is no clear Democratic front-runner, according to State Rep. James Talarico. He campaigned alongside Hegar for his seat in the Texas House and said the key to flipping the congressional district is to have an inclusive platform and work across the aisle.
“It's going to take a candidate who has a message that appeals to a broad base of community members. One that fires up our Democratic base while still being inclusive of independents and even some disillusioned Republicans,” said Talarico.
Mann, who entered the primary before the other four candidates, has been the top fundraiser in contributions, collecting $171,000 through Dec. 31, according to Federal Election Commission records. Imam has raised $208,000, though it includes a $100,000 loan to herself.
Steve Armbruster, chair of the Williamson County Republican Party, sees Hegar's 2018 run as lightning in a bottle and is doubtful Democrats will replicate her performance.
“I don't think that the Democrats have anybody on their side of the aisle that they could choose that would have the ability to draw voters out like they had two years ago," Armbruster said.
Hegar said she believes this year’s Democratic lineup is competitive enough to finish what she started in 2018.
“We have a strong batch of candidates, and I am confident that by continuing to mobilize volunteers and voters the eventual nominee will close the 2.9 [percentage point] gap we had left and send John Carter to retirement in 2020,” Hegar said in an email.
Carter remains unconcerned with losing his seat in the district and said his approach to preventing a flip is to continue with the strategy he’s had for nearly two decades.
"I'm going to do what I've always done, and that is to listen to my constituents, focus on grassroots, knock on doors, and deliver results to Central Texas. Last cycle, I was outspent four to one and I still earned the support of my constituents. Voters are smart, they see past viral videos, glitzy mail and catchy soundbites, I have a record of getting things done for Texas' 31st district and voters see that," Carter said.